Tournaments | Story | 11/30/2011

In the land of the Braves

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game
All that is required to get a total sense of what the Richmond Braves National Baseball organization is all about is to take on quick look at the home page of its website.

The front page at www.richmondbraves.org is dominated by a list of the most recent college commitments made by its players in the classes of 2012 and 2013. Photos accompany the short write-ups announcing the commitments, and the write-ups contain a quote from Braves’ co-founder Jeff Roberts that reveals his thoughts about the prospect.

Off to the right-hand side of the home page is a list of more commitments, dating back to the class of 2011. These are impressive lists.

“We consider ourselves to be a college development program. That is our expressed purpose,” Roberts said in a recent telephone interview. “We like to say we’re in the business of playing baseball and Perfect Game can attest to that by how much we play in their events. We’re not an academy and we’re not affiliated with any academies; we don’t have a training facility. We’re in the business of playing baseball and our expressed purpose is to help kids get exposure and play in college.”

It has been a steady climb to the top for RBN Baseball, which is based in Richmond, Va. It is now recognized as one of the top organizations of its kind in the country.

Jeff Roberts and Tommy Mayers started the Richmond Braves in 1999 when their oldest sons, right-handers Will Roberts and Jacob Mayers, were 9 years old. It turned out Roberts and Mayers put together a pretty good ballclub right off the bat, and kept the team together for the next three years.

After Will and Jacob’s 12-year-old season, the fathers decided to jump over the 13-year-old division and move their sons right into 14-year-old age-group play. That broke up the original group of players, but Roberts and Mayers were able to put together an even better group that ultimately included six 2008 MLB draftees – OF Ty Morrison, RHP Tim Melville, LHP Danny Hultzen, RHP Zak Sinclair, 1B Austin Stadler and Roberts’ son, Will.

Morrison and Melville were fourth-round picks of the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals, respectively; they signed right out of high school and are still part of those organizations. Hultzen, a 10th round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008, chose to attend the University of Virginia instead, and went on to an All-American career. He was chosen in the first round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners with the No. 2 overall pick.

Another Richmond Braves player in the class of 2008 was OF Jackie Bradley. He enjoyed an All-American career at two-time defending NCAA national champion South Carolina – he was named the College World Series’ Most Outstanding Player in 2010 – and was a first round compensation selection of the Red Sox in the 2011 draft.

"Will Roberts went on to the University of Virginia after high school and signed with the Cleveland Indians after being selected in the fifth round of last year’s amateur draft. Jacob Mayers is a junior at the University of Richmond.

"It ended up that we got a real strong crew of players who played for us after we re-formed (the team),” Roberts said. “We ended up with a team that was really fantastic and that’s how we kind of built our reputation, with that group of guys.”

The Richmond Braves organization fielded teams in the 12-to-18 age groups in 2011 and the Braves were represented by 17 squads at seven Perfect Game tournaments. There were no PG national championships in 2011, but the original group mentioned previously was responsible for winning the 2005 WWBA 15u National Championship and the 2008 WWBA 16u National Championship.

The Braves sent three teams to this year’s PG WWBA 15u National Championship, WWBA 16u National Championship and the WWBA 17u National Championship, all played in Marietta, Ga. The best showing of any of those nine squads came for the Braves 2013 National team, which finished 6-1 at the 16u National Championship after winning its first six games. There were also single entrants to the WWBA 14u National Championship and the 15u BCS Finals.

The Braves sent two teams to the WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla. – the Braves American and Braves National – and sent a Richmond Braves National team to the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., where it finished 2-3 and missed the playoffs.

Right-hander Ryan Lauria, a 6-1, 175-pound junior at Hidden Valley High School in Roanoke, Va., who has verbally committed to Louisville, was one of three Braves prospects who played in both the WWBA Underclass World and WWBA World championships. The others were 2013 1B/LHP Bryce Harman from Chesterfield, Va., and 2013 MIF Charlie Yorgen from Richmond. Both have committed to East Carolina.

Eight other prospects on the Braves National’s WWBA World Championship roster have made NCAA Division I commitments: RHP/3B Stephen Brooks (Army), C Robbie Depp (Norfolk State), 3B/RHP/1B Dominic Fazio (High Point), RHP Jack Geraghty (North Carolina), 3B/1B Jonathan Ramon (Evansville), 2B/OF Bobby San Martin (James Madison) and OF/MIF Reed Schlesner (Miami, Ohio).

Ramon and two uncommitted Richmond Braves – outfielders Will Nance and Texas Williams – were named to the WWBA World Championship All-Tournament Team. Ramon hit .357 (5-for-14) with three RBI and three runs scored, Nance hit a pair of home runs, drove in five runs and scored four more and Williams batted .444 (4-for-9) with three walks and four runs scored.

Roberts said the Richmond Braves started playing in Perfect Game events when both organizations were in their “infancy.” He recalled taking his Richmond Braves American team to the first PG WWBA 16u National Championship in 2004, an eight-team tournament held in Bourbonnais, Ill.

"The condition of the playing fields were less than ideal, but PG officials moved games to nearby junior college fields and the Braves persevered with one of the youngest rosters of the eight teams present.

"We took our lumps at the event – we got knocked around a little bit – but we had kids who were literally 13 years old out there and we gave as good as we got,” Roberts said. “But at that event, the way (the PG staff) handled it really impressed us. They made one of the greatest adjustments I’ve ever seen – we got off those crappy fields and ended up playing on college-quality fields the rest of the weekend. We had the greatest time; we took the kids to Wrigley (Field) and it was one of the best trips we ever had.”

Roberts estimated the Braves have played in at least 100 Perfect Game events since that inaugural trip in 2004. “It’s been fun to watch them grow and it’s been fun to be part of that,” he said. “We have basically grown right along with them and I doubt we would be who we are today if weren’t for our success in those Perfect Game events.”

"Coming by that success has become much more difficult than it was back in 2004, when there might have been only eight teams in a “national” tournament. Today’s PG nationals often feature more than 100 teams – even 200 – and many of those teams are put together specifically for one tournament.

"We’re in the business of playing baseball and we play to win,” Roberts said. “It has gotten a lot harder over the years to do that; there are a lot more teams that come to those events. You have to play so many games and it’s hard for a lot of teams to carry the quantity of pitching that requires. You almost have to go out and supplement your roster just for that event.

"It would be very hard, anymore, for us to win one, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have expectations.”

Roberts and Mayers aren’t afraid to load up a team for a tournament, for no other reason than to make sure it will be competitive. While the 23-man roster at the WWBA 17u National Championship included 20 Virginians, the 20-man roster at the WWBA World Championship included players from Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, New York and Ohio.

"The landscape for putting these teams together is much, much more competitive than ever before, but Tommy and I really relish it,” Roberts said. “One of the things we realized when we first got to know each other … was how competitive we were. We really wanted to win anytime we went out. We expected to win and we were very, very competitive.

"That’s probably the primary reason that we do Perfect Game events – they are very, very competitive” he continued. “You’re going to get your teeth kicked in if you’re not careful going into those events. The scouting value certainly ranks 1 or 2, but the competitive nature of Perfect Game’s events is certainly right up there with why they’re great events and why we go year after year.”

Another of Roberts’ sons, Jack Roberts, is a top junior RHP prospect at James River High School in Richmond, and Mayers has another son, Eric Mayers, who is a sophomore catcher at Virginia Military Institute.

Jack Roberts, ranked the 89th top national prospect in the class of 2013, hasn’t committed to a college yet, but is certain to receive plenty of offers. He has already played in front of hundreds of college coaches and scouts thanks to his participation in 16 PG events since 2008.

Giving a kid the opportunity to get at least a portion of his college education paid for remains the driving force behind Richmond Braves National Baseball.

"We have expectations of continuing to grow,” Roberts said. “We want to maintain our competiveness, and we think that what we do and the service that we offer is as important as it’s ever been. What we found out was, through baseball these kids might get a better college education then they might get on their own without baseball. Their baseball coach can get them into a college that’s a better institution, perhaps, then one they could get into by themselves.”

"At the end of the day, that’s really the kind of work that we’re doing and that’s why we find it very gratifying and have every expectation to stay in it.”

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